Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Roger Nierenberg’s InSight Concert Provides a Rapturous, Under-the-Hood Look at a Symphony Orchestra

What was it like to be seated between the basses and the kettledrums at conductor Roger Nierenberg‘s InSight Concert at the DiMenna Center Saturday night? For those who gravitate toward the low registers, pretty close to heaven, when those instruments were part of the sonic picture. The rest of the audience was interspersed between various other orchestral sections…and then were encouraged to move to a new spot for the second half of the evening’s program. Not a brand-new idea – the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony played a revelatory version of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony in this same configuration last winter – but in any event, a memorable one.

Nierenberg has carved a niche for himself helping corporate clients employ orchestral-style teamwork, and the orchestra’s performance of a very smartly chosen program made a striking reminder just what a monumental feat it is to pull off a successful symphonic performance – the primary difference between a musical ensemble and a corporate environment being that backstabbing musicians have very short careers. To get a piece of music to work, everyone playing it has to trust each other.

On the podium, Nierenberg personified purpose and clarity, and a sense of call-and-response, delivering an agenda that the ensemble made good on. As a bonus for concertgoers, he invited them onto a big platform behind him, to watch over his shoulder for a conductors-eye view of the concert throughout a dynamic reading of Kodaly’s Galantai Tancok. It was the third and most vivid of a trio of folk-themed suites on the program, alternating between upbeat airs and more brooding Balkan themes, oboe and clarinet delivered crystalline, minutely nuanced solos front and center.

Britten’s Suite of English Folk Dances came across as sort of an etude for orchestra, packed with all sorts of high/low dichotomies that kept audience heads turning as the focus shifted in a split-second from the flutes, to the low strings, to percussion and then brass. Nierenberg’s own Playford Dance Suite, drawing on the very same folk melodies that Britten appropriated for his, packed considerably more emotional impact, and was much more clearly focused as well.

As many conductors do, Nierenberg also had the orchestra pull illustrative quotes from the program’s concluding numbers, Wagner’s Siegried Idyll – a birthday wake-up present from the composer to his wife, the conductor explained – and Ravel’s Mother Goose Ballet. Again, the contrasts – balmy atmospherics versus kinetic phantasmagoria – were striking to the point where the crowd was left with a takeaway that most likely lingered long after the concert. If Nierenberg gets his way, it’ll leave a much more lasting impact: mission

September 19, 2016 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Crazy Segues and a Transcendent Lincoln Center Performance by the Park Avenue Chamber Symphony

Anyone who experienced Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring for the first time in concert Sunday at the Rose Theatre at Jazz at Lincoln Center is spoiled for life. The Park Avenue Chamber Symphony’s recording of the piece is good; their performance this time out was transcendent. One hopes that they recorded this as well, because it will supersede their previous one. Conductor David Bernard remarked privately before the concert that his game plan for what might otherwise seem like a bizarre juxtaposition of the Stravinsky with Lorin Maazel’s mashup of Wagner opera melodies, The Ring Without Words, was to illustrate how both suites draw from folk themes. And he’s right on both counts, but what he didn’t allude to is what the orchestra was challenged to say with the music: “Just look what this mighty beast can do.” And they delivered.

Mechanically speaking, the Rite of Spring is a minefield in more than one sense of the word: there’s always something going off unexpectedly somewhere, and there are pitfalls everywhere. But the orchestra danced around them, with passion and fervor, methodically one by one. Solos were precise and emphatic, from Gabriel Levine’s looming bassoon, to Brett Bakalar’s similarly resonant english horn and the thunderingly meticulous percussion of Robert Kelly and Paul Robertson, among other standout moments. Segues were similarly seamless, contrasts were vivid and Stravinsky’s whirling exchanges of voices were expertly choreographed. And much as the orchestra left no doubt that the composer’s “stone age ballet” was a dance party, Bernard had his serious hat on all the way through, conducting from memory with a clenched-teeth intensity in contrast to his usual bounding, beaming, joyous presence in front of the ensemble.

On face value, following with the suite of popular Wagner tunes was a rather drastic change, requiring the orchestra to shift abruptly from high gear to low, to switch on a dime from staccato thrash to recurrent washes of atmospherics, a daunting task to say the least. But the group proved they could do it. On one hand, the music was everything Stravinsky was ostensibly trying to upend: comfortable, audience-friendly heroic themes laced with nostalgia. And Maazel’s artful segues may not have completely eliminated the camp factor, even though the vocals were edited out. But his arrangement does manage to sidestep what Sir Thomas Beecham famously groused about during one particular Wagner rehearsal: “Three hours later, and we’re still playing the same bloody theme!” And those melodies’ unselfconscious, singalong attractiveness is due at least in part to the folk tunes that Wagner fell back on. Maybe it wasn’t such a crazy segue after all. The Park Avenue Chamber Symphony’s next concert is on May 16 at 8 PM at All Saints Church, 230 E 60th St. just west of First Ave., where they’ll be playing music of Hindemith, Schumann and Bach.

February 25, 2015 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Another Thrill Ride with the Greenwich Village Orchestra

There’s no thrill like being right on top of a symphony orchestra as they stampede through a particularly energetic passage. It’s almost like standing too close to the tracks as a train goes by: you literally feel the music as much as you hear it. And at the Greenwich Village Orchestra’s concerts, you don’t have to have a hedge fund in order to get a front row seat (a $15 donation gets you in; as at Merkin Hall, seats are general admission). Their previous performance back in November looked to be pretty much sold out; their concert this past Sunday wasn’t, probably because the program was more obscure (and maybe because it was what has become unseasonably cold outside). As it turned out, nobody took those front-row seats this time, probably because the sightlines are better a little further back in the auditorium. Standing in for the orchestra’s music director Barbara Yahr, conductor Pierre Vallet led the ensemble through a joyous, often Christmasy program that began and ended on a celebratory note. Conceivably, this particular bill would have been an appropriate choice for the New York Philharmonic Society to play sometime in the winter of 1886.

The first piece was Wagner’s Prelude to Die Meistersinger. Although it’s hardly profound, it’s impossible not to pick up on the subtleties and get lost in the music if you’re only about fifteen feet from the stage. A cynic might say that the orchestra figured, ok, if we have to play this thing, we might as well have fun with it – and they did! It wasn’t quite unbridled lust, but it was close to it – and the piece’s artful little touches, like the tense, shivery strings leading up to a crescendo in the midsection (“Uh oh, is the singer up there going to blow it, or win the contest? This suspense is killing me!”) were undeniable. The opera it comes from is farcical – it’s an ancestor of American Idol – but this orchestra redeemed it, at least this particular excerpt.

German Romantic composer Max Bruch is best known for his plaintively powerful Kol Nidre Variations. The Orchestra played his four-part Scottish Fantasy suite, which isn’t quite as gripping, but it’s awfully close, particularly the lushly moody opening movement. Guest violinist Hye-Jin Kim was obviously enjoying herself as she made her way through meticulously bracing variations on the Scottish folk themes on which the piece is based. It’s a showcase for virtuoso fiddle-dance moves, and Kim made the most of them as the work picked up steam, its cinematics shifting from rugged Scottish coastline to country dance and then a triumphant battle theme, Vallet literally dancing on his toes on the podium as the orchestra swung through the changes with congenial majesty.

The concluding piece was Beethoven’s Symphony No. 4, which is vastly underrated as Beethoven goes. The backstory here is that when he wrote this, Beethoven was in the midst of a particularly fertile period, even by his standards. He’d already started the Fifth Symphony, but then received a commission from a German nobleman (in those days, there were no foundations for the arts and no Kickstarter: you went straight to the one-percenters) who was a big fan of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2. Perhaps cynically, it seems the composer figured something like, “What the heck, I’ll knock off this one and then get back to my new magnum opus.” But he didn’t just phone it in – in its warm, comfortably glimmering way, this was a joy to hear. A well-oiled, perfectly balanced machine, the orchestra made their way through the suspenseful atmospherics of the opening movement, to a sudden, blustery gallop and then the buoyantly swaying minuet in the second, awash in the glimmering contentment of the high strings against warmly nocturnal, sustained brass and woodwind tones. After the stately, hypnotic, bass-driven pulse of the third movement, violinist/concertmaster Robert Hayden nimbly led the rest of the strings through the understatedly apprehensive flurries of chromatics that finally lit the fuse for several entertainingly Beethovenesque false endings. In the back, Yahr grinned in appreciation for the way her orchestra had bonded with Vallet, and vice versa. The GVO’s next concert is especially choice: March 25 at 3 PM at Washington Irving HS Auditorium on Irving Place, featuring Khachaturian’s Sabre Dance and Violin Concerto followed by Brahms’ Symphony No. 3 directed by up-and-coming conductor Farkhad Khudyev.

February 15, 2012 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment